November 30, 2018

We Should Pass Seasonal Worker Reforms in the Lame Duck



For years, states have been clamoring for more H-2B visas —which cover seasonal, non-agricultural work — because they’re necessary to keep American businesses alive during their peak seasons. Not only do we need more visas —the annual cap of 66,000 is expanded most years by DHS with an additional 15,000 visas — we need to think of the visas in terms of when the market needs them, like when states declare natural disasters. As Congress continues to debate government funding bills in the lame duck session, lawmakers should look to increase or double visas to ensure we have the necessary labor we need. 

The H-2B visa is a temporary employment visa granted to seasonal non-agricultural workers, such as those who work at resorts or for landscaping companies. Each visa allows the individual worker to work and reside legally in the country for the season—usually up to ten months—or a one-time period of up to three years.  

In order to acquire an H-2B visa, the immigrant’s employer must petition for it. This includes making a definitive showing that there are not enough U.S. workers willing, qualified, and able to do the work, that hiring the foreign worker won’t affect the wages and working conditions of any similarly employed U.S. workers, and that the need is actually temporary.  

The federal government made significant rule changes in 2015 in order to provide more worker protections to both foreign and U.S. workers. These included adding additional U.S. worker recruitment requirements and layoff protections, as well as wage and work hour requirements for foreign workers. They also provided retaliation prohibitions against employers, a prohibition against withholding or destroying any immigration documents, and a prohibition against placing the worker in a job not petitioned for.

Both Democrats and Republicans with businesses in their states have called for a cap increase for years. In many cases, businesses reliant upon these visas to either limit their business or close, thereby also harming their U.S. workers by putting them out of a job. Some states have taken drastic measures in order to keep their businesses open, such as Maine, which conditionally commuted the sentences of a number of prisoners in order to fill the labor shortage.

Labor shortages are exacerbated by the staggering number of recent of disasters. In 2017 alone, states in the U.S. made 135 major disaster declarations, requesting that the federal government provide relief for disasters ranging from hurricanes, to floods, to wildfires and tornadoes — all are increasing both in frequency and economic cost; the wildfires that occurred in Northern California’s wine country this year were the costliest in history, with claims nearing $9.4 billion.

These shortfalls intensify when there are multiple disasters close in geographic proximity or multitude. The 2017 hurricane season is officially the most expensive on record, with two major hurricanes — Harvey and Irma — hitting the same coastlines, and Hurricane Maria ravaging Puerto Rico. All told, the U.S. suffered more than $200 billion worth of damage from 17 named storms.

When Hurricane Katrina stuck New Orleans in 2005, immigrants were welcomed  to the city to work as carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. At the time, it was much easier for construction firms to find laborers in a hurry when it came time to cleanup and rebuild because the Bush administration chose to ignore the legal status of the largely undocumented population that helped rebuild the city. Under the Trump administration, that is no longer the case, and many disaster areas are reeling.

When Hurricane Harvey smacked Houston and devastated the Texas coastline last August, the aftermath saw homes destroyed, vehicles totaled, schools shuttered, drinking water contaminated, and businesses ravaged. The storm caused over $125 billion worth of damage, and displaced 13 million people from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

In addition to emergency funding, the city desperately needed laborers to erect shelters and temporary housing, restore power, and begin a massive cleanup, but few were available.

About two months after Harvey hit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 227,000 unfilled construction jobs. Even though Houston issued more than double the average number of permits for building single-family homes, homeowners are still waiting for new homes because no one is available to build them.

Employers in the Florida Keys are also reporting devastating labor shortages in the wake of Hurricane Irma. And shortages are not only affecting disaster-torn areas, but areas in need of renovation, and regions seeing growth.

When Harvey hit, job openings in the U.S. reported a record high at 6.2 million, with openings in construction increasing by the third highest number of any industry. Even though construction pay is nearly 10 percent higher — $29.24/hour — than the private sector average, nearly 82 percent of construction firms surveyed from the Associated General Contractors of America report said it will become harder to hire workers in 2018.

The logical step to filling the emergency needs created by national disasters is by increasing the availability of labor through our existing temporary worker visa system. But the government needs to let in more foreign workers — specifically H2A and H2B visa holders — when there are natural disasters that require an influx of laborers.

Permanently increasing the cap would also positively impact the businesses that use this program. The cap is consistently met, and Congress has already been raising the cap each year to deal with the number of applications submitted annually. As businesses continue to expand (as we hope they will), the need for seasonal workers will only increase. It would be beneficial to provide some certainty to the program by increasing the cap permanently rather than leaving businesses to hope and lobby to get the workers they need.

Congress shouldn’t leave town until they address this issue in December.